Interview with Russell Smith: Food photographer

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Hi Russell. Thanks for setting aside some time for me in what I imagine must be a very busy schedule. You are one of Cape Town’s most sought-after food photographers. You have produced work for magazines such as House and Leisure, The Heart Foundation’s magazine, Women’s Health and Fresh Living Magazine and shot for clients such as Simonsberg Cheese, the Col’Caccio restaurant group, Sasko and Cambridge, a division of Massmart. How did you get into the world of food photography?

Before I was a photographer, I’d been an art director. My very first job as an art director was on Woolies food and I instantly took a fascination in making food look good and appetizing. I worked with good photographers who inspired me and also felt that food was a subject that, at the time, still had some way to go visually. The Australians were starting to get it right and my goal was to make food photography look sexy.

There aren’t many cookbooks like Tomlin’s on South African shelves at the moment. I can imagine that producing the photos was unlike anything you’d done before?

Yes, I liked that it was a long-term project. The challenge is to keep the style of the book fresh and interesting but not all over the place from front to back. You need to keep a visual thread running through the book to give it its unique style. Liam’s preparation and dishes were hugely instrumental in beginning the process, along with lighting, styling and compositions, and I found a photographic style that would create appetite and impart information at the same time.  

Russell Smith and chef Liam Tomlin

What did you try and capture in the photos for Lessons with Liam?

It is very much a teaching book. An encyclopaedia, if you like, of how to build from the bottom up. The step-by-step process is a big part of the book and the photography needed to help tell the reader what to do as clearly as possible. And of course always appetite appeal when it comes to recipes.

You appear on the back of the book, alongside Tomlin. How did you two work together as a team?

This book came after a good working relationship that already existed. We had time to know how the other worked and build mutual respect. After a year of shooting this book we are rearing to do another, which should give you an idea of how we got on. We would joke with each other a lot, but would always be responsible in our roles and equally passionate and perfectionistic in our work. We’re a good team all in all.

Some of Russell's other work.

You have a distinct photographic style and you shoot for clients who expect you to follow current popular trends. Lessons with Liam, on the other hand, has a timeless, classic look. Did this force you to step outside of your current working style?

My style for this book was forced to change – not due to trends, but more for practical reasons. We had to shoot the book in Liam’s kitchen to be close to the oven and his food. The problem was that there wasn’t great daylight and since I like to shoot food with ambient light, I was forced to adapt and use flash for this book. This did bring advantages, though, in that it is a more predictable light, which is good for continuity.

I’m sure you had a lot of fun with the book. What was it like photographing recipes for creamed spinach, clarified butter and illustrating things like preparing and deboning a duck?

I have to mention the two crayfish that appear in this book that arrived one morning alive and kicking, only to be put to sleep gently in the freezer before kindly giving up their lives for the hot pot. And then there were the ducks. I learned a lot and got used to a lot.

Liam Tomlin cooking in the Chef's Warehouse.

The crayfish that had to be sacrificed for making crustacean oil.

What is food photography to you?

So many things. But, most of all, it is to get the most appetite out of jam spread on a slice of bread or to create the best mood from a bunch of tomatoes through lighting. One should at least be drawn to the food to want to read the article or take a look at the recipe. There is so much food photography that you need to make yours stand out and differentiate your food photography from everybody else’s.

What are some of the biggest challenges of food photography?

Like everything else, there are some foods that don’t shoot well and either don’t bounce off light to give it sparkle or are too dark and deaden the light. Or have an amorphous shape that refuses to look pretty. Then you have what I call the “Claudia Schiffer” of food that you can’t take a bad shot of from any angle. The subject is that good.

In a time where Instagram is turning everyone into a “food photographer”, how important is professional food photography and what sets it apart from amateur work?

A good question, and this is a whole subject on its own. I have just written a blog post about this as it is a real concern for all professionals. We are living in a digital age where we are all connected and sharing words and images by the thousands. This abundance and popularity has cheapened the image. Not great if your trade is in images. All the more reason to produce exceptional imagery with even better service. And it is the professional who constantly do this reliably with every shoot.

What inspires you?

Other photographers who have taken a well-trodden genre of photography and given it their own spin.

Do you have to do food styling as well?

No, I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by crazily talented people who make me look good.

Professional food photography and blog food photography are two different things. For one, in a studio you have more control over lighting. Do you have any tips (more or less five, please) for food bloggers and amateur food photographers who want to improve their photos?

1. Use a tripod to keep the camera steady.
2. Use a long lens, around 100 mm, on a full frame (preferably macro).
3. Use a window with good light and then soften this light if necessary.
4. Keep water or oil nearby to keep your food moist and juicy.
5. Get a good stylist or foodie to make the food so you can concentrate on taking better pictures, and be very well prepared.

When producing your own food blog, you often take on all the roles that would otherwise be divided in a traditional shoot. You formulate the recipes, test them, style and shoot the pictures, write and post them. If you are starting out, it is sometimes good to collaborate with people who can help you in other ways, in other words you concentrate on the pictures while someone who loves to cook or bake makes the food or develops the recipe. Until you get to a level where you are comfortable with doing it all.

Is there anything else about the Lessons with Liam book or experience that you would like to share with us?

Buy it! It has been put together by a true master for the everyday cook as well as the experienced. It is timeless and will be one of those books you can always rely on to help you through any part of your cooking repertoire.


Having trouble watching the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.

Read Susina Jooste's review of Lessons With Liam here.


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